Nat Geo's Big Cat Week: Must-see episode shares quest for researcher's 'Holy Grail,' the snow leopard

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Nat Geo's Big Cat Week has a raw honesty that makes for truly compelling television. Even when the topics covered are painful, stressful, or downright embarrassing, it is nearly impossible to turn away from the screen.

For 2012, Nat Geo is offering a mixture of premiere episodes and classic segments that should give the week some real bite.

The must-see episode this year appears to be "Snow Leopard of Afghanistan," a quest to find the very elusive big cat. Boone Smith, a well-respected biologist and trapper, calls the snow leopard his personal "Holy Grail." His typical modus operandi involves chasing the big cats into a tree so they can be sedated, tagged, and tracked.

Afghanistan almost proves too deadly for Smith and the film crew. Teaser footage from this episode shows the trapper talking about locating the snow leopard at night. Unfortunately, Smith said he also had encounters with falling rocks and a loaded machine gun.

"Stalking the Mountain Lion," a 2011 episode, contains unprecedented footage of a hidden den in Yellowstone National Park, revealing some truly harrowing moments. Cat expert Tyler Johnerson discovered the den, but the lioness wasn't pleased to see a human face near her cubs.

Johnerson barely escaped with his head intact and had to keep his composure to report back about his find. The cat expert returned with naturalist Casey Anderson to record the lives of these mountain lions.

"Leopard Queen" underscores the circle of life and the pecking order of predators. Manana, the longtime subject and arguably the friend of filmmaker John Varty, struggles to raise her cubs in a hostile environment. Because leopards attack the offspring of other leopards, the camera shows Manana attempting the risky maneuver of mating with two males.

Even when she protects her young from other leopards, Manana can't always keep them safe from predators. In a heartbreaking sequence, a python locates and kills Manana's lone cub, turning it into a meal. The angry leopard stalks and attacks the python, forcing it to regurgitate the cub's body.

"American Cougar," a segment from 2011, documents the activities of F51, a female cougar in the Northern Rocky Mountain region. With a radio collar tracking her movements, a hungry F51 heads off to hunt elk, her preferred choice for dinner. The Nat Geo cameras document her hunting techniques and successful kill.

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